Alumni Short

Michael Huyghue Brings an Insider’s Perspective on Racism in Pro Sports

After three years as a Cornell football player, Michael Huyghue, BS ’84, worked his way through law school at the University of Michigan, earning a JD in 1987. That’s when he turned pro, working as a legal assistant for the NFL Players Association, and in the decades since, he’s been one of the highest-ranking black executives in professional sports.

He’s been commissioner of the United Football League, general manager of the Birmingham Fire, labor relations counsel at the NFL, and vice president of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who made football history with division titles in their fourth and fifth seasons. He’s played both sides of the ball, negotiating for labor and management, and pioneered a path on the Management Council Executive Committee, the College Advisory Committee, and the Committee on Minority Hiring.

“I was called ‘First Black’ so many times, I used to think it was my name,” said Huyghue, presenting “An Insider’s View on the NFL and Player Protests” at Myron Taylor Hall on September 22. “Every one of those jobs, they hired me because I was black. They were cognizant of that, and so was I. Now, I still had to be able to do the job, I had to be skilled. But they were looking to hire a black person, and that means I got a chance to go through the door and make an impact to keep other people coming through.”

In the lecture and in his new Behind the Line of Scrimmage: Inside the Front Office of the NFL (Center Street/Little, Brown), Huyghue tackles issues of race and racism in collegiate and professional sports. An adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, Huyghue talked about the lack of black head football coaches in professional football, the USFL’s lawsuit against the NFL, the controversy surrounding players who kneel during the national anthem, the importance of treating athletes with respect, and the decision Colin Kaepernick made to sacrifice his career for a political statement.

“These are serious issues,” said Huyghue, who teaches The Art of Negotiation in Business and Sports and leads the Jacksonville marketing firm Michael Huyghue & Associates. “People have mistaken their real importance, and in terms of misunderstanding each other, we’ve reached a critical time for a discourse on race. It’s a conversation that’s going on in silos but not in any collaborative way. We need to step outside the box and give consideration to other people’s cultures, to elevate that conversation, because our differences are our strength.

“You’re never happy with the pace of change,” he continued. “You’re frustrated and you bite your tongue almost all the time. But you also understand that incremental progress is still progress.”